Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Jonathan Krohn and Ageism

   Those of you who have watched cable news of late or follow conservative movement politics may be familiar with the name of Jonathan Krohn. Krohn first rose to some prominence in the conservative movement in 2008 with the success of his self-published book "Define Conservatism" which came out when the author was thirteen years old. Since writing the book, the author went on to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Now seventeen years old, the author has renounced some of his former political views and is once again making the political talk show rounds, now to position himself as a more moderate thinker who has evolved on a number of key issues including same-sex marriage and the role of government in ensuring access to healthcare. You can read more about Krohn's life and philosophical transformation here.

   I have followed this story with a great deal of interest because of what it says about a number of issues central to my youth rights advocacy - youth political disenfranchisement, how the idea of distinct developmental stages as applied to youth subverts youth achievement, how narratives about youth incapacity and ignorance serve an agenda of adult supremacy, and how all of us are encouraged as we age to distance ourselves as much as possible from the beliefs, ambitions, and feelings of our younger selves. Krohn's story provides the most striking example of the way these dynamics play out in practice that I have seen in the mainstream media in quite a while.

   The only actual interview I have seen with Krohn took place recently on the The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, a political talk program on MSNBC. What I found interesting (if unsurprising about this appearance) was how quick O'Donnell was to chalk Krohn's political conversion experience up to nothing other than the fact that, at thirteen, he was apparently too foolish to think seriously about politics. O'Donnell's comments were almost without exception condescending. As the interview progressed, it became strikingly obvious that Krohn was more well-read than O'Donnell himself. In interviews such as this one, Krohn himself seems eager to chalk his previous political views up to nothing more than youthful naivete. Says Krohn here, "It’s a thirteen-year-old kid saying stuff that he had heard for a long time.… I live in Georgia. We’re inundated with conservative talk in Georgia.… The speech was something that a thirteen-year-old does. You haven’t formed all your opinions. You’re really defeating yourself if you think you have all of your ideas in your head when you were twelve or thirteen. It’s impossible. You haven’t done enough.”

   In these comments one sees that even someone as thoughtful and intelligent as Jonathan Krohn or Lawrence O'Donnell can fall prey to logical fallacies surrounding ageism that are so prevalent within our culture that they are taken for granted as common sense. The problem is that they simply don't apply in the uncomplicated way that Krohn and O'Donnell seem to think that they do. It would be convenient for all of us if people under a certain age exhibited political immaturity but upon reaching the age of majority suddenly developed seamlessly rational and coherent political views. Instead the political, social, cultural, and economic views of people of all ages often change over the course of their lifetimes in messy and unpredictable ways. In middle age, Arianna Huffington moved from the right to the left after beginning her career writing for conservative publications like The National Review and serving as the token Republican on Comedy Central television programming. There are also examples of young people whose political involvement largely reflects their adult perspectives. Clearly if we are uncomfortable with disenfranchising the young it cannot be because they sometimes change their minds - this happens to many adults and not all young people hold views that are at odds with their later belief systems.

   The line that Krohn was conservative solely because he was inundated with conservative political talk in Georgia also strikes one as slightly disingenuous. Krohn did not have his political conversion experience as a result of leaving the state. And many people find themselves fairly unmoved by the political climate of their immediate environs, even as a child. (I was one of them.) Additionally, most adults are influenced to some degree or another by the political atmosphere of their communities.

   It is obvious from reading Krohn's writing and listening to him speak while he was in his early teens that he possessed a political sophistication and breadth of knowledge that few Americans of any age possess. Even though he may be a more sophisticated political thinker at seventeen than at fourteen, he was still a more sophisticated political thinker at fourteen than most Americans ever are.

   The truth is that when most people see intelligent and politically engaged individuals under the age of majority, they become uncomfortable. Suddenly they are forced to reconsider the wisdom of a society that keeps someone who may be more mature, well read, and sophisticated than themselves socially, economically, legally, and politically powerless. In order to ensure that we do not draw from our own memory banks in order to question the oppression we ourselves experienced as youth, we are taught to distance ourselves as much as possible from our younger selves and to regard views held prior to adulthood not as one set of many perspectives we hold throughout our lives but as inherently deficient and immature. Thus the logic of age apartheid is maintained.

   After watching the interview on the Lawrence O'Donnell program, I sought out information about Krohn's book on Amazon. While I flipped through the book briefly, what I found even more interesting were the reviews that the book had garnered from Amazon readers. The reviews largely fell into two categories: those claiming that Krohn's book was mediocre due to his youthfulness and those claiming that Krohn's book was so sophisticated that a person of his age could not have written it. Amazingly, some reviewers seemed to hold both perspectives simultaneously. Only one reviewer seemed to engage in a non-condescending manner with the substance of the writer's ideas.

   Reading these reviews I was struck by the enormity of Krohn's courage (or maybe his naivete regarding human nature, a trait present in some individuals of all ages). When you write a book at fourteen years of age you cannot win. If the book is unexceptional or poor, many people will blame it on your age. If the book is edifying and worthwhile, many people will believe that you could not possibly have written the book or that the ideas in the book are not truly your own. Almost no one will engage with the substance of the ideas in the book, the driving force which prompted you to write the book in the first place.

   Ironically, most adults claim that they want youth to be creative and to excel to the best of their abilities at whatever they undertake. The Amazon reviews of Krohn's work (seemingly all written by adults) put the lie to this canard. Adults don't really want youth to excel to the best of their abilities when it is threatening to adult sensibilities. Adults want youth to hew to stereotypical age-based scripts in such a way that it doesn't make the adults themselves uncomfortable about young peoples' political, social, legal, cultural, and economic disenfranchisement. Rigid ideas about the developmental stages of youth serve a political purpose at least as much as they serve a pedagogical purpose. When we do encounter an indisputably talented young person, we label them a prodigy in order to assure ourselves that they are so freakishly outside the norm that they pose no threat to age-based segregation and oppression. (Interestingly, Krohn is partially ethnically Jewish and in many ways, Jewish Americans and African-Americans seem slightly less uncomfortable with youth excellence than other American ethnic groups, an observation also made by Shulamith Firestone in her youth liberation and second wave feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex. In a similar vein, it is also worth noting that for at least part of his youth Krohn was home-schooled in keeping with one of Firestone's other observations that contemporary schooling retards rather than promotes young peoples' development.)

   As Krohn ages and continues to change ideologically and personally, perhaps he will realize that it wasn't a stark contrast between middle schoolers and the rest of us that gave rise to his political transformation as much as the fact that we are all in a lifelong state of flux regarding our beliefs, values, and personality. (When I was younger I used to think that by the time I was in my mid-twenties I would finally arrive at a stable place ideologically and that my previous state of flux was due to my immaturity. My subsequent life experiences have not borne this hypothesis out.) But I wouldn't count on it. After all, the impulse within our culture to discount and distance ourselves from the perspectives of our youth is hegemonic and serves a convenient set of political purposes in the context of a society largely based upon age apartheid and youth disempowerment. It is time for all of us to raise our respective consciousnesses about the manifest ways in which this phenomenon affects us individually and collectively. And when we do we might realize that when we were younger than we are today, we were not as different or as "other" as we are led to believe that we were.

Jonathan Krohn today at seventeen years old.